WIRED ONLINE MAGAZINE

http://www.wired.com/news/news/culture/story/12630.html

Sharing the Fire Online
by Steve Silberman


8:23am  1.Jun.98.PDT

Folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie is no stranger to high tech.

In the late '60s, she used a Buchla synthesizer to record the first ever all-electronic vocal album, Illuminations. Not that itgot much notice. "People were more in love with the Pocahontas-with-a-guitar image," she says.

Now, Sainte-Marie is using the Net and CD-ROMs to change the ways that kids are taught about the histories and the lives of Native Americans.

The Cradleboard Teaching Project matches up students in native tribal schools with non-native students, delivering curriculum that challenges kids' understanding of who Indians are, and most important, allows native and non-native teenagers to get to know one another online and off.

The result, says Sainte-Marie, is non-native kids who grow beyond cowboys-and-Indians stereotypes, and native kids who learn higher self-esteem.

 

The heart of the program is what Sainte-Marie calls "the fire" -- creating a place where young people can be honest with one another about their lives and their ideas. By asking one another questions in online chats, cultural barriersbetween students in tribal schools and those growing up in non-native areas are worn down.

"They ask anything they want: 'Do you live in tepees? Do you hunt buffalo? Do you still smoke pot in those peace pipes?'" Sainte-Marie says. "By looking at the questions the kids are asking, we learn the scope of what needs to be done."

Photo: Doug Knudson

By coupling the chat sessions with structured teaching materials in print, on the Web, on video, and on CD-ROM, kids learn tribal history as they become more comfortable with one another. The project received a crucial boost two years ago, when the Kellogg Foundation came through with a grant of US$1.5 million. Currently in use in 33 classes nationwide, the Cradleboard Project is expanding rapidly,Sainte-Marie says.

The non-native kids who go through the program are often surprised to learn how badly native peoples have been treated.

Fourteen-year-old Emory Griffin-Noyes, from Kula High in Hawaii, says that the more the kids from the Rocky Boy tribal school in Montana told him about their culture, "the more I wondered about my own culture."

"[Native people] were just pushed around, and on the reservation, they're being ignored," he says. "There's such poverty. My heart cried out for them. We can't learn that from books. We're getting it directly from the source."

As Deva Grear at Kula learned more about the lives of the Cree and Chippewa kids at Rocky Boy, she started looking at the native Hawaiians in her own area differently. "Pretty much the same things that happened to the native people," she observes, "happened to them."

Talking online, the students say, is a process of discovering both differences and similarity. Griffin-Noyes was excited to find out that his Native American peers share his passion for dirt-biking, and Grear says that learning that the kids at Rocky Boy listen to drumming tapes on their Walkmans and still attend traditional powwows was "really cool."

Susan Gayle, teacher and coordinator of the Rocky Boy Cradleboard site, says some of her own preconceptions were challenged by partnering with the kids at Kula.

"The issues of Hawaiian sovereignty that they're dealing with parallels questions about tribal self-governance" on the reservation where she lives, she says.

The real-time interaction made possible by the Net was crucial to the learning process, she believes. "If they had been composing letters and mailing them, it would have been more of a formal writing exercise, and they would have put it off."

The seed of the Cradleboard Project was planted in 1983,when a teacher friend of Sainte-Marie's told her she couldn't bring herself to teach the standard lesson plan about Indians with a native kid in her class. Sainte-Marie developed less stereotype-ridden teaching materials for her to use, but until Sainte-Marie hit upon the idea of partnering native classes with non-native ones, she says, "it was just dead texts about dead Indians."

Bringing kids together offline is also a crucial part of theCradleboard curriculum. Gayle took a delegation of four kids from the reservation in Montana to Kauai earlier this year.

"On the way to Kula, we stopped at a fruit stand, and the kids had never seen many of the fruits before," she says. "But then when we drove up to the school, the kids saw a basketball court. The first thing all the kids did was grab a basketball and start playing. It was a really good game."


Copyright © 1993-98 Wired Ventures Inc. and affiliated
companies.
All rights reserved

.